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Using a Digital Camera Manually

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

The Nitty-Gritty Camera Settings Quick Guide for Artists

If you're like me, you like to draw and paint, but photography was never really your thing. One day, though, you were confronted with the indisputable fact that you were going to have to learn a bit about photography if you were going to be an artist. You would need to take good reference images. You would have to photograph your work. And if you were going to join the modern world at all, social media posts would demand pictures.

So you bought a DSLR because that was what you were told 'professionals' have and became immediately overwhelmed with all the different settings. You could shoot completely automatic, which you do for awhile. But then the draw of all those dials became too much, and you just had to figure out what they could do. You then start taking pictures in Portrait Mode, Landscape Mode, and Macro. You're still looking for an opportunity to use the Moving Pictures/Sports Mode. Then one day, you venture into Manual Mode: the enticing and dangerous mystery mode that gives you complete control, if you could only figure out what everything does. You fiddle with the settings. They change things. But how do you capture what you're really seeing? What are all these settings actually doing?

The mystery is over! Here is a list of all the niggly bits you may encounter on your camera journey of discovery. We'll keep the rabbit hole small, though. We won't go into light metering or super in-depth white balance adjustments. These are basic definitions of photographic things told by an artist for artists. This is not meant for you cool photographer savants. We artists are mere toddlers playing in your infinitely nuanced sandbox.


List of Terms

Aperture: How big the camera lens' opening is; how much light is allowed to enter into the camera, measured in f-stops. The smaller the f-stop is (the wider the aperture), the more light is let into the camera and the shallower the depth of field.

Shutter Speed: How long light is allowed to enter the camera, measured in seconds and usually written as a fraction. The bigger the fraction, the more exposed the image will be.

Film Speed (ISO Speed): How sensitively the digital sensor reacts to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive and the longer your shutter speed and/or wider your aperture needs to be. Usually you get a better-quality image the lower this number is. The higher the number, the more noise (grainy picture quality) there will be.

White Balance (WB): Adjusts the color of white for different lighting situations. Common options are: Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten Light, White Fluorescent Light, Flash, and a Custom setting.

AF One Shot: The camera will autofocus only once when the shutter is pressed halfway. This is best for still subjects.

AF Al Servo: The camera will continually autofocus when the shutter is pressed halfway. This is best for moving subjects.

AF Al Focus: The camera will automatically switch between One Shot and Al Servo depending on the movement it detects.

Manual Focus (MF): You have complete control over the focusing of the lens, usually adjusted on the lens itself.

AF Point Selection: When autofocusing, the camera focuses on the closest subject to the camera. You can choose which point to focus on with Point Selection in case the default is not what you want.

RAW: Raw, unprocessed image data. Highest quality images at large file sizes.


So, there you have it, a quick reference to help untangle how to get your fancy camera to behave.

If you'd like to see my post on applying these settings, see my post on camera settings here.

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